It's all about me


A job application that I am down to the wire on in making the deadline wants me to write, in addition to the usual suspects–cover letter, research and teaching statements–a “statement of contributions to diversity.” And because I am having trouble getting started I thought it might help to free-think some ideas here (and get my weekly quota of blog writing up as well).

The main reason for my troubles with the statement is that I am not sure how to write something that won’t come off as whiny or strident, self-glorifying, trite or any number of other pejorative adjectives that I can think of in the context of the issue of writing about diversity. First there is a Duh! factor: which is that I contribute to diversity on any number of fronts just by being–I am a woman, a “mature” candidate (would I count as “post-mature” in the jargon of my social scientist colleagues I wonder) and ethnically an Indian. Even as I’m listing these features it occurs to me to create a new acronym, OBG–for “Old Brown Gal”–which just happens to bring to mind the “woman’s” doctor in medical science, the ObGyn (As I’ve said, equally sincerely in other blog posts, this pun or whatever wasn’t planned…it just happened, I swear). I also happen to be diabetic and while it does not affect my workplace activities or needs, it is still one of the featured conditions in the disabilities section of any Equal Opportunity/Demographic questionnaire.

Of course I can’t simply make that statement- “I contribute to diversity just by being” because not only is it trite, it is also simply not enough. Just being a minority does not do much, if anything, for the betterment of the community, and to be frank, I have never been much for identifying with a community based on one aspect of who/what I am. Furthermore the categories represented in the label don’t even begin to cover the gamut of issues on which we need diversity–which label is usually used for talking about women, Ethnic/racial minorities, people with disabilities, the LGBT cluster and increasingly religion. Age, which I included in the OBG category, is asked about for demographic purposes, but seems to…

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Well I petered off at that point two days ago, but did manage to get the formal statement, and hence, the application completed. In the end I began by “outing” myself as an OBG, though I did not use that term. And the diversity I focused on for the bulk of the paper was linguistic diversity. Addressing the issues of ESL/EFL student support for one, and that of linguistic impoverishment (again, though I didn’t use that word) within academia and ways to address it. I also managed to sneak in some pop culture–outdated as it might be to most–with a reference to that old Adam West Batman movies. Holy Tower of Babble Batman! you might say à la Robin.  I thought it apropos, and hope the readers get a kick out of it. (#33)

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The thought occurred, while answering an email about my current book project, that in  that I should write about the various strategies I have adopted in the years since I conceived of this book, in order to tackle a large project  more manageable. That my title is alliterative is just a happy co-incidence.

Stepping stones: Every project has its stepping stones and they come in many forms. I am reminded as I am typing this that a formal proposal is a natural stepping stone, but the one that I was thinking of particularly when I started to write this is what I call a stepping-stone publication. Undertaking such a project eases one into the larger task so by the time one actually officially “begins” the latter, there are already bits and pieces ready and available to be patched-in, expanded or otherwise modified. Two papers that I published, in 2014 and last year, are two stepping stones of slightly different types. The first was a “preview” of sorts–call it testing ground–where I first floated the central idea that eventually became the basis for the book. The inception of this this paper goes back a few years earlier actually–but at time the “book” was yet a dim possibility. It still serves as the outline for my larger project–10 pages to the roughly 200 that my book is supposed to be. The second paper, is a far more specific, and details a specific argument based on a specific archival find. It was an actual stepping stone, the first official paper that I wrote before picking up the courage to tackle the larger, more intimidating book itself. Funny thing is that I didn’t actually get to the content of the paper until recently, almost two thirds of the way into the book. But having it there helped. A third project currently underway, is a segue from the book–a way to suss out some ideas and get into material that is less familiar to me.

Spin-offs: Such articles are exactly what the label implies. Home in on a particular aspect–one idea or something–that has already been written into the book and spin a slightly different angle or go into greater depth about it. I recently submitted my first spin-off effort (which I actually began as a stepping stone) but didn’t really get into until recently by which time the chapter had been written. But as I wrote the paper I found myself revisiting the chapter and changing details (of course I do that at almost every reread in any case, but this time the changes were more substantive as opposed to merely cosmetic. I have more spin-offs from my dissertation (but no stepping-stones, although paradoxically, the first paper has that phrase in the title). And while it may seem repetitive, I think spin-offs are hugely useful exercises because they keep you in the game.

So that’s my two bits worth on my writing life (#38)

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Now that I think about it, there are many ways that this prompt might be taken–in my colleague/co-author, Ton van Helvoort’s words, it has a lot of “interpretive flexibility.” And sometimes, that flexibility is not necessarily a good thing. Because not all interpretations are benign or even innocuous, even though many are.

Let me explain… Musical instruments have always fascinated me, in part because I can’t play any with any degree of facility. That may be the reason this prompt caught my eye. Well, that and the fact that it reminded me of a scene in an episode of the T.V. show Sex and the City, where the protagonist Carrie Bradshaw (SJP) in pursuit of the eponymous goal, is “played” like a cello–by a cellist (I think) or in any rate, a musician. The way it was played, the scene was mostly amusing, in a smile- rather than laugh-inducing way, not particularly romantic or erotic, but (or perhaps thus?) memorable for all that. There was another, genuinely romantic scene in one of the later seasons, where the Mikhail Baryshnikov character plays her a song he’s written for her on the piano (another another piano-related romantic moment suddenly popped to mind: the fabulous Michelle Pfeiffer and Jeff Bridges “makin whoopie” on the piano in The Fabulous Baker Boys… but I digress). The point I guess I’m trying to make is illustrated in the difference between what happened to Carrie in the two episodes–whereas she was played in the one, she was played to (or for) in the other–and that makes all the difference.

Being played has another far more negative connotation, which is what came to mind when I looked at the prompt today. It means being taken for a fool or being conned. And for me, personally, that is the worst thing someone can do to me. I can remember virtually every time I’ve been played (which is not the same as being played a joke on or teased etc etc) and I don’t think I’ve ever quite forgiven the folks who’ve played me either at a personal or professional level. I think it’s because more than them, it’s myself I can’t forgive for having been so gullible, to have been taken in and being played. And so there is transference of the anger. Which is not to say that I sit around plotting dastardly revenge (although I will admit to some fantasies of me fabulously snubbing these people) but I do gradually distance myself from those who played me. Eventually,  in the first case, I think indifference is the best revenge. And living well is always a good revenge as well, in any circumstance…

Gosh, this turned into a weird and sort of cathartic, self psycho-analysis rather than a fun write up about how I would like to be a violin or Cello or piano or something. But that’s the thing about writing to these prompts– they really unlock unexpected memories, feeling etc. And the write-up emerges quite different. Oh well,  until next time. For now the answer is still… (42).

The title of my post is actually the title of a book by Pat Conroy (of the Prince of Tides fame) which I happen to be reading write now and enjoying very much…Plagiarism? one might ask, to which I’ll offer a paraphrase of T.S. Eliot’s famous line about immature poets imitating vs. mature poets stealing. Actually he goes on to talk about bad poets defacing what they imitate and the good ones taking something and making it better “or at least different” but that part is not germane to this post. So I’ll defer a discussion of the American Schoolteacher to another day and post (perhaps) and get to the the subject at hand, which as the titles proclaim, is about my writing life.

What triggered this post is a description by Conroy of his writing habits. To him, “the writing life requires the tireless discipline of the ironclad routine. The writing of books does not permit much familiarity with chaos.” Funny I should encounter that statement today of all days, when earlier in the morning (many hours before Pat Conroy was in my psyche) I was thinking about what makes me tick as a writer. And the conclusion I came to, in an impassioned monologue in my head that I delivered to no-one (and would never have done so but for the inspiration) was quite the opposite of Conroy’s description: that routine for me is anathema.

I thrive, or at least my writing self does, on chaos. I mean, I can’t even sit at the same spot 3 days in a row without getting restless and losing productivity. I need to mix something up–go to a cafe (if I’ve been working at home); a different cafe if I’ve visited the same one more than once; or change the hours I work or what I’m working on. Consider my inability to keep to my once-a-week resolution on this blog. I tried I really did, but it hasn’t really worked has it. I often go several days without writing and then suddenly have a succession of entries. As a PhD student I indulged myself in what I called “productive procrastination” with at least one other major project–what became The Human Genome Sourcebook, a reference book about the human genome, which I wrote over a period of 4 years all told, with a co-author. And this wasn’t even the first book to come out of my years as a grad student–the first, another reference book on microbes, was a solo effort that I had embarked on even before I had begun my Ph.D. Of course the first year of grad school brought the progress on that book (which bears the long and boring title of Microbes and People: An A to Z of the Important Micro-organisms in Our Lives. My father wanted me to call it The World of Small Things–another Eliot follower even if unknowingly so–but the title was not up to me) to a screeching halt. But then came my first summer, which I spent with Dad as my roomie at the oddly organized, I. M. Pei designed, East West Center at the University of Hawaii, where over a period of two-and-a-half months I wrote most of the book. Again–or I should say setting the pattern for the future–following a gloriously chaotic non-schedule that entailed some midnight visits to my Dad’s office and some dawn time walks from the Math Dept. to the EWC!

My current book–about 5 sevenths (or 5 eighths) of the way in since I began writing for real and in earnest last (2016) February or March–has been yet another exercise in discipline through chaos, written in bits and pieces in cafes and friends and cousins homes  all over the world–Melbourne in Australia, London, Philadelphia, Toronto, New York, Savannah (Georgia), the Bay Area, Bangalore… so far. (The proposal was written up entirely in Seoul I think). Fair enough since its geographic reach is similarly worldwide, though not quite as peripatetic. Most of the individual scientists that I am writing about–the eccentric Felix d’Herelle being the notable exception that proves the rule–were remarkably stable in their careers spending decades if not their entire careers in one place.  But there is method to my madness as the saying goes, or a consistency to my chaos. And once again I’ve found a way (actually multiple ways) to procrastinate productively with other projects, as yet too undefined, some even embryonic this.  (#43)

I recently read The Woman on the Orient Express a fictional account of a snippet (well actually a grand chunk) of Agatha Christie’s life. I thought it a nice blend of the real facts and Christie’s fiction–especially the subtle ways in which scenes and characters from various books wound their way into the story, the latter interesting touted as the inspiration for her plots when in fact the reverse is truer. I always give points to a book when it makes me want to read new ones or revisit old favorites and this book certainly did that. I really thought some of the real characters that Lindsay Jayne Ashford brought into the book resembled certain characters in some of Christie’s novels.

What really drove me to write about this book here (as it happens for I reviewed it already on Amazon) was a chance to marvel anew at the really small world this is. For never in a million years did I think that the I could claim anything less than six degrees of separation with an author who had died before I had started reading her books! (at least I don’t think I had read any of her books before I turned eleven…) Here’s how that unfolds: My dear friend Emmanuelle Salgues is an Assyriologist–which means she can read Gilgamesh in it’s original chicken scratch script but that’s another story– and her PhD advisor was a student of Max Mallowan, who was Agatha Christie’s second husband. I think that officially connects me to Agatha Christie through 4  (3?) degrees. Cool bragging right isn’t it? And guess what, now that you’ve read this post, you too will be able to claim the same (if you know Emmanuelle) or 5 by dint of knowing me who knows E, etc etc.  So my fellow nerds.. enjoy..  (#49).

An alternative title (or a subtitle) to this blog entry might well have been My Adventures in Anosmia. Anosmia for those who might not know is the lack of ability to smell. It might be caused due to trauma, a bad infection (I’ve heard) and may be temporary or permanent. In my case it was congenital, that is to say I’ve been anosmic since birth, and therefore the condition is permanent. It has something to do with the way the olfactory grooves in the brain were formed or not formed, I believe. I just didn’t or couldn’t get into the groove, one might say.

Despite being born anosmic, neither I nor indeed anyone around me cottoned on to the fact for many years. Even now, even folks closest to me, including my Mom forget and will hold out something to me and say something like “isn’t this lovely?” or “smell this,” and I’ll obligingly sniff. The habit is deeply ingrained because it wasn’t until I was past twenty-one when a doctor pointedly asked me about my sense of smell and I thought about it, that I finally learned for a fact that I actually couldn’t smell. The fact was confirmed by a series of medical tests…

Now that I think about it, there had always been hints, but only in retrospect do I recognize them as such. For instance, I remember reading about an experiment  in which a blindfolded person was asked to identify a piece of fruit–apple or pear–fed to them while the other one was held to their nose. According the to book most people would identify the fruit by smell not taste, but no, not I. At the time I was puzzled because I always unerringly identified the fruit I was eating, whereas most others gave mixed responses. I was evidently relying on other clues such as texture to make my guess. Then there was the fact that I always needed to do a taste test (or sometimes a curdle-in-hot-water test) to figure out if  milk had turned. And my enthusiasm as a teenager for the perfume Chanel No. 5 was a mere peer imitation. Fact of the matter is that no matter which perfume was held to my nose, all I got from taking a whiff was a cold rush of air through my nostrils! More often than not, it was the color of the liquid or the design of the bottle that determined my choices.

Unlike blindness, which is to sight or vision what anosmia is to the sense of smell or olfaction, anosmia is not easy for most people to understand or identify with. Indeed, more often than not people have not heard of the word, and when I tell them I can’t smell, their reaction, after perhaps the assumption that I have or have just had a cold, is  one of puzzlement combined with a vague sense of disbelief. Then when I explain, the first question almost is always is “How do you taste?” And aside from occasionally being unable to resist a comeback along the lines of “Delicious” or holding out my hand with a “want to find out?” (Only if I’m fond of the person), I try to  explain that my sense of taste is not impaired. Or at least it is not diminished in the sense of the range of foods I can discern and enjoy. I think this ability might be attributed to the fact that I learned to taste  in a different way than do most others, My nerdy/geeky scientific self thinks it might be a compensation by the trigeminal nerve for the inactive olfactory nerves/groove.  But back to the question: not only can I taste, but as friends will attest, I love variety in my meals, and am a pretty good cook… who can often re-create or at least simulate dishes based on taste alone!

It was in fact my ability in the kitchen that led certain musically savvy roomies of mine to give me the nickname that prompted the title of this post. Beethoven the composer famously started to loose his hearing sometime in his twenties and was almost completely deaf for the last decade or so of his life.  (A quick aside… All this biographical information incidentally was checked out on Wikipedia). As I said before, I didn’t lose my sense, never having possessed it in the first place, but the analogy was apt in any case, and the compliment much appreciated. That my activity in the kitchen was often accompanied by strains of a four-handed arrangement of Beethoven’s Seventh played by my roomies adds an additional layer of sweetness to both the nickname and the memory of it. (#51).

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